The Unintended Consequences of Innovation

The Legal Health Check-Up (LHC) is an innovation that has been successfully implemented by several community legal clinics in Southwestern Ontario. Reviewing the outcomes of the LHC over the past 5 years reveals how this innovation has had transformative impacts on service delivery in 3 community legal clinics in Ontario. The LHC was first piloted by Halton Community Legal Services (HCLS) between October 2014 and January 2015, after which it became a permanent component of the delivery approach. Three other clinics began experimenting with the LHC at about the same time. Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County and the Legal Clinic of Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk were the three early adopters working closely with Halton. The three early adopters joined 10 other clinics in the Southwest Region in a large trial of the LHC in 2015. Hamilton dropped out in favour of developing its highly successful Hamilton Outreach Project, which established satellite clinics with intermediaries in the city, partnering with the same organizations that were part of the LHC plus several others. Following the 12-clinic second phase pilot project Halton, Guelph and Brant indicated that they would continue to actively promote the LHC in their communities. The other clinics have continued to respond to occasional requests for assistance by people who have accessed LHC questionnaires on-line. This review focusses on the impact of the LHC on the three clinics in which the LHC has been proactively adopted into their service delivery approach.

The LHC began as a way for community clinics to identify people experiencing problems with potential legal issues and to encourage those people to request appropriate assistance. This is important because people experiencing everyday problems may not recognize the legal aspects of the problems they are experiencing and may not go to a lawyer or other authoritative source of help. However, they often go to community services and voluntary associations for assistance revealing the potential legal problem in the course of seeking help for some other issue. Community organizations became partners with the legal clinics, carrying out the gateway roles of problem-spotting and referral, extending the capacity of the clinic beyond what the resources of the clinic would allow by developing these partnerships with community organizations. This was done using an LHC questionnaire with problem scenarios written in ordinary language, allowing service providers in community groups to spot potential legal problems without extensive training.

Between 5 and 7 years on from the original experiment in 2013 the LHC continues to produce referrals in three community legal clinics that have continued to actively promote it as part of their overall service delivery approach. However, over that time the LHC has been successful far beyond its original objective in each of the clinics, magnifying its effect on service delivery in ways that could not have been predicted. In each of the three clinics, experience with the LHC produced a more holistic, client-centered and community-focused delivery approach than what had previously existed. At HCLS the LHC has become the basis for “a new way of looking at things”, guiding the development of a new infrastructure for providing service. The Executive Director expressed the service delivery approach of the clinic in the following way. “We come to you. We help you in a way that makes sense to you.” The experience with the LHC at Halton has led to the development of several outreach programs. Over the last 5 years the number of cases has increased by 85% and the number of public legal education (PLE) sessions provided to the community has increased by 691%.

In Brant, according to the Executive Director, the experience with the LHC has changed “the way lawyers at the clinic approach their work, how the clinic relates to clients and to the community.” “You can draw a straight line between the LHC and these changes.” The clinic has hired a community development worker who has developed a strong network of community partners, resulting in referrals coming from the community. Lawyers at the clinic occasionally draw on this network to bring together ad hoc groups to resolve complex cases that require a creative combination of legal and non-legal efforts.

The legal clinic in Guelph has continued to build contacts with the community, expanding the number of intermediary groups that were part of the original LHC experiment. The in-depth conversation with clients to identify unmet need that is at the core of the LHC has become the way in which the clinic engages clients. This approach was a key part of the recent, and very successful, mobile van project developed to expand service to rural Wellington County.

These experiences with the LHC illustrate an important feature of successful innovation. The process of innovation did not end with the final project date. The benefits did not end with the objectives of the original innovation. The impact of the initial innovation multiplied salutary impacts on the overall delivery approach in ways that could not have been predicted at the outset. Holistic justice was not a new idea when the LHC project began. By 2013 holistic justice was well known in the literature and in the professional discourse surrounding access to justice. For example, in Australia, the no wrong door, no wrong number approach to legal services had been famously stated in a 2009 federal policy paper. However, it is not the literature that drives transformational change at the service delivery level. In the opinions of the people involved in all three clinics, it was the actual experience of implementing the LHC experiment that drove the subsequent transformational changes in service delivery that were seeded by the initial experiment. One important reason why this happened is that the LHC was based on a solid conceptual framework building on the results of legal problems research. A second, and very important reason for the success of the LHC innovation beyond its original objectives is the on-going discussion that occurred among the clinics, creating an incubation space in which the clinics learned from the different experiences implementing the LHC in different communities.

There is a message for funders and project developers in this story about how transformational change in legal services occurred in one place and time and, perhaps, can occur elsewhere. Valuable ideas come from the world of research, but there are important ways in which the engine of change works on the ground at the service delivery level. This is why funding innovation is so important. Fund innovations, if possible in several places at the same time. Take advantage of the diversity of experience created by several clinics trying the same thing in different communities by creating an incubation space is part of the process so that people can share experiences and lessons learned. Continue with some level of support after the initial innovation because, in the very best sense, there may be no clear end in sight, only more creative transformation.

Ab Currie, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice

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